6 Things Parents Should Avoid When Guiding Teens About Sex


traffic-signs-674623_1280As an OB/GYN and an advocate for teen pregnancy and STD prevention, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interact with parents on the topic of teen sexual health.  Often, parents allow misperceptions and worries about what to say to their kids about sex become obstacles to effective communication.  As a parent, you want to be able to provide the very best guidance to your kids. The more knowledge you have, the more empowered you will feel.

The following points will help you to avoid sentiments that can interfere with your efforts to proactively and confidently parent your teen about sex.  Positive advice is given to replace unhelpful or even negative thinking and actions.  By changing your mind-set, you can become a more assured and capable parent.  That’s my goal and I know it’s your goal too.

1.  Don’t delay talking with your teens about sex, unintended pregnancy and STDs.    The time is now and you don’t have to feel daunted by the task.  Become an informed parent, while keeping an open mind and a sense of humor.  Also, remember your own teen years to help keep things in perspective.

2.  Don’t worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, or say too little or too much.               Trust your instincts and remember that you’ll have several opportunities to get your point across.  If you say something that you later regret, find the time to let your teen know what you really meant to get across.

3.  Don’t expect perfection or lose confidence in your ability                              Remember that you have already helped your child learn how to do all kinds of things, from using the potty to riding a bicycle to saying “please” and “thank you.” Communicating about sexual behavior and what your values are is another one of these important tasks—you can do it.

4.  Don’t underestimate the influence you have on your teen’s sexual behavior.    Parents often worry about the effect of peer pressure, but surveys by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reveal that parents have more influence on teen sexual behavior than their friends do.  This feeling was echoed by teens in the Pregnancy and STD Prevention Program that I led in Los Angeles.

5.  Don’t hesitate to use social networking sites and media to your advantage.                 Song lyrics, movies, and TV episodes often provide teachable moments. You can have a thoughtful conversation with your teen about sexuality, respect, commitment, and self-esteem based on things you’ve seen or heard in the media.  Facebook and Twitter posts can also offer a foundation for conversations with your teen about values and how he or she can best navigate the sexual landscape that they encounter growing up.

6.  Don’t assume you know what your teen is doing or whom they’re with.          The odds are you weren’t a perfect teen, so expecting perfection in your teen isn’t realistic.  Sometimes, parents assume that their kid is not having sex and are shocked when they learn that’s not the case.  You can simply ask your teen if they’ve thought about having sex.  This may allow you to pick up on possible reasons for concern.  And, never hesitate to pick up the phone and call to verify that an adult will be present at a friend’s house party.  Supervision, especially for very young teens, is an essential prevention measure against all types of risky behavior.

Teen Pregnancy: No Time For Complacency

pregnant absTeen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. have reached historic lows, so it might be tempting for parents, healthcare providers, community leaders and others to think, “problem solved!” and move on to another really important teen issue.  But here is the reality:  The most recent data, according to the Guttmacher Institute, still show approximately 625,000 teen pregnancies still occur annually in the U.S.  That’s roughly equal to the population of a city like Baltimore.  And, the U.S. has higher teen pregnancy rates than other comparable industrialized countries.

The term “teen pregnancy” doesn’t begin to convey the cascade of public health and social problems that occur when teen girls get pregnant and give birth.  Statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy show that teen pregnancy is a significant cause educational and economic hardship.  Only about 38% of girls giving birth before age 18 obtain a high school diploma by age 22.  Sadly, just a fraction of teen moms will obtain a college degree by the age of 30.  This educational disadvantage is one of the reasons that teen pregnancy is a leading cause of poverty. Data from 2010 shows that roughly half of teen mothers, not staying with their parents, were living in poverty by the time their child turned three.  A lack of education and economic hardship, too often propel teen moms and their children to lives of unfulfilled potential.

In 1997, I co-founded and chaired a Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention Program at my hospital in Los Angeles.  A key goal of this program and my continued work in this area is to educate parents and to facilitate their ability to guide their teens towards healthy, smart, and values-based decisions about sexual health.  After all, parents should be the primary sex educators of their children, but often they report feeling unprepared, or even clumsy, about this very important parenting task.  The following Pearls of Wisdom are excerpts from Before It’s Too Late:  What Parents Need to Know About Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention:

  1. Be an empowered parent—education is the key.  Staying abreast of current information about teen pregnancy and prevention issues will help you feel more confident in talking to your teen.
  2. Keep talking—and please avoid that one time, awkward moment, called “The Talk”.  You’ll want to have many conversations with your child about the wide spectrum issues related to sexual health.  Some may be more formal, but teens prefer more impromptu, casual, and brief talks.
  3. Emphasize your values and morals—if you don’t, the vacuum will be filled with the highly sexualized information abundant in today’s media.
  4. Partner with health care providers—you don’t have to go it alone.  Choose a health care provider for your child who is tween/teen friendly, has an interest in promoting sexual health, and is really willing to listen.

Photo courtesy of J. K. Califf